Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
3rd Sunday of Advent, C
December 17, 2006
Zeph 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18
1) “What then should we do?” This was the question that was asked by the crowd in today’s Gospel. St. John the Baptist responded first with general advice to share generously with those in need and with specific counsel to the tax collectors and soldiers in the crowd about how to do what the Lord wants from them in their particular circumstances. The question made of the Baptist is one that each of us should ask the Lord regularly. “What should we do to fulfill your will?” Today the liturgy of the Church responds wholeheartedly with advice that is both general and specific to each of us. It’s the same advice that St. Paul constantly gave the early Christians, like the Philippians in today’s second reading. It’s both beautifully simple and profoundly challenging. Here it is: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” He said the same thing elsewhere to the Thessalonians: “This is God’s will for you: rejoice always!” (1 Thess 5:16). Our vocation, our fundamental Christian mission, is to rejoice.
2) We call this third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday” because every year on it the Church has us reflect upon Christian joy. We get the title “Gaudete” from the Latin expression St. Paul uses when he tells us to rejoice always, gaudete semper. Likewise, on the fourth Sunday of Lent each year we celebrate “Laetare Sunday” from another Latin word for “rejoice.” To highlight the importance of these Sundays, the priest uses rose vestments and, during Advent, we light a rose rather than a purple candle on the Advent wreath. Why do we mark each of these liturgical seasons by focusing particularly on joy? The reason is because Church wants us to erupt with joy on Christmas and Easter — two of the most important events in the history of the world — and knows that most of us, probably all of us, need preparation to do so.
3) The reason why we need preparation is not simply because many of us, during Advent for example, get distracted by the frustrating commercial side of Christmas. It’s something much deeper: Most of us need preparation because the vast majority of Catholics do not live our faith with exuberant, enthusiastic joy. Many Catholics behave as if they view the ten commandments more as ten life-draining burdens than ten life-giving paths. They respond to the “good news” as if it’s “bad news.” They approach prayer more as a dry duty than as a loving encounter and dialogue with Love himself. They come to Mass as if their motto is not “Happy…” but rather “Unhappy are those who are called to His Supper!” They seem like sad spectators at a home game for cellar dwellers like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays than joyous participants at something far more important than a World Series victory. They don’t sing. They don’t even smile. I remember six years ago on Gaudete Sunday preaching in Portuguese at Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River. They parishioners overall were very faithful and devout, but there was something grossly absent in their Catholicism: no one ever smiled! I mentioned in the homily that several saints have described that a warm natural smile is the external sign of joy, which flows from the presence of God within. After the Mass, a holy, but stern-faced elderly lector came to me and said, “Senhor Padre, a gente portuguesa não sorride. Não è o nosso carácter.” (“Father, the Portuguese don’t smile. It’s not our character.”) I smiled joyfully at her and then responded lovingly, “Gilda, please don’t say it’s the Portuguese character not to smile. To the extent that the Portuguese do not smile, it’s not a sign of character, but the lack of character, because the Portuguese are Catholics and it’s part of the Catholic character to rejoice — and smiling is a sign of that joy!” Sometimes many of us can be like that Portuguese lector, thinking that it’s just not our personality to be joyous about our faith and our life. But that’s where God wants us to grow and to change. Gaudete Sunday is a gift to us each year, to get us to focus on the command God gives us through St. Paul to rejoice always, beginning again today.
4) St. Paul tells us to rejoice 22 times in his letters. He exhorts us, just as he did the Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, Galatians, Corinthians and Colossians to rejoice always: to rejoice in the truth (1 Cor 13:6), to rejoice that Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:18), to rejoice over repentance (2 Cor 7:9), to rejoice when weak (2 Cor 13:9), to rejoice to be poured out as a libation (Phil 2:17), and, finally, as we have in today’s reading, rejoice that the Lord is near (Phil 4:4). Sometimes we can think that this command is unrealistic, that St. Paul must have been writing it surrounded by friends eating strawberries and cream on some beautiful Mediterannean beach. In fact, he was writing these letters as his arms were chained to the wall in a filthy prison cell in Ephesus, where he was still recovering from brutal beatings he had received. So when he says “rejoice always,” he means even in suffering. There’s no restriction. There’s no excuse. There’s no expiration date. We are to rejoice always, in good times and in bad. At a human level, let’s face it, this seems so unrealistic, because we’ve all experienced pain and suffering, and the sadness that flows from it. Sadness is the opposite of joy and we basically think that sadness is normal, expected, and even warranted in circumstances like the death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend, or the notification of a negative medical diagnosis. But St. Paul is not naive when he tells us to rejoice always and he’s not trying to command us on behalf of God to do something that is impossible. While on a human level, it may be impossible to rejoice always, but on a supernatural level it is not, because God will make it possible. Christ himself tells us in the last beatitude that we are “blessed” and are called to “rejoice” even when people “revile you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” for they did the same things to the prophets and our “reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12). But in order for us to rejoice in difficult circumstances, we must be able to say yes to God’s will and to the help he will give us, in every moment, to help us to rejoice always, even in hardship, suffering and pain.
5) What is the foundation for our Christians joy? It is the deep conviction flowing from our Christian that God is with us and loves us. As we hear in today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart… [because] The Lord, your God, is in your midst; … he will renew you in his love.” In the second reading, St. Paul tells us “Rejoice… [because] the Lord is near.” The responsorial psalm, which we sang five times earlier today, tells us, “Cry out with joy and gladness, for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.” We are called to rejoice because the Lord is in our midst, the Lord is near, the Lord is among us. The whole season of Advent leading to Christmas reminds us that God wished to be “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, and freely took on human nature, with all its struggles and sufferings and even death, to redeem them all. He took the “sting” out of all of them (1 Cor 15:55) and turned them from being ontological evils to relative goods, because all of them now are involved in our redemption. Because God always loves us and is always near, as long as we do not forget these truths, we can always rejoice.
6) But our reasons for joy go beyond merely our conviction that God loves us and has come into the world. Our joy is deepened by the knowledge that God didn’t just want to be God-with-us on the outside, but God-with-us on the inside, dwelling within us as in a temple from our baptism, abiding in us and us in him through holy Communion, restoring our friendship with him when we’ve broken it off through mortal sin, sending the Holy Spirit to strengthen us through Confirmation, accompanying us in our marriages, conforming us to him in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and so much more. As long as we remain in the state of grace, the Archangel Gabriel should be able to say to us what he said to Mary in the Annunciation, “Rejoice… because the Lord is with you!”
7) But the foundation of our joy goes even deeper than that. The Lord’s presence within us is not static, but dynamic. He’s loving us from within, and helping us, and conforming us ever more to Himself, who is the source of our joy. He’s also helping us to have greater faith in Him, teaching us how to pray, convincing us that He is ever attentive to our prayers, 24/7, giving us his full, undivided attention and love. The key to our Christian joy is to root ourselves in these truths and not to forget them!
8 ) The sad fact is, though, that sometimes we do forget these truths and this amnesia — and the actions that flow from it — is what leads to the lack of joy.
a. We forget the Lord’s presence and choose to sin, which in effect forcibly evicts God from our souls. Our consciences then begin to remind us of our guilt and often we proudly choose to live with the guilt or try to forget it rather than cure it by going humbly to the sacrament of confession and allowing Christ to take the weight of guilt away.
b. We fail to remember God’s loving providence and begin to worry or complain or pity ourselves. We then begin to eat ourselves alive and focus on what we don’t have rather than on all that we do! And if we have God, then, in the deepest analysis, we really have it all!
c. We forget how great God is and start to place our heart, our treasure, in something or someone else. We start to care too much about whether our favorite sports team will win, or whether our particular political party will govern, or whether they’ll be a white Christmas, or whether we’ll have a great year at work or at school, or whether some particular person will fall in love with us or do something we want him or her to do. If we set our desires on prestige, advancement, particular material things, the affection of other human beings — or as many in the world do, on power, money, or sex — we’ll NEVER BE JOYOUS. If we don’t achieve what we’re hoping for, it’s obvious why we won’t find joy. But even if we obtain any of these things, we won’t be joyous either, because none of these things can bring us joy but only pleasure, and there’s a huge difference between pleasure and joy. Real joy comes from God and Him alone and, as CS Lewis used to say, anyone who has tasted this type of joy would never trade it for all the pleasure in the world.
9) Gaudete Sunday is a real gift to each of us and all of us to return to who we really are and who we’re called to be. We are God’s beloved children and we’re called to be happy children because God is a great and loving Father! A Christian who is not joyful is not just an oxymoron but a false prophet. If we’re not joyful, we make the “good news” a lie. On the other hand, if we are really filled with joy, the world will bust down the doors of our churches to get in, because our family, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, our fellow students, are made for joy, don’t have it, and consciously or unconsciously are seeking it. If they see it in us, they’ll hunger to know why, and they’ll follow us here to the source of our joy, who is Christ Jesus. So much of the world will be coming to Church on Christmas, out of a good habit, and God wants them to be so moved by the bursting, enthusiastic joy of this community, that they will not be able not to come back!
10) The Mass is the perfect place to begin our re-rooting ourselves in Christian joy. In the Mass, we enter live in time into the eternal events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We bring our whole lives, the good and the bad, to Calvary, where we ask Jesus to take them, to unite them to himself on the Cross, to transform and transfigure them by the power of his resurrection. We ask him ultimately to change and transform us through his word and through entering into communion with him. One of my favorite saints, St. Josemaria Escriva, was once asked why he couldn’t stop smiling when he distributed Holy Communion. He responded, “Because I am giving Happiness incarnate to people!” Jesus is our happiness. Jesus is our joy. And during the celebration of the First Mass in the Upper Room, he told us, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete!” Jesus our joy has called us to rejoice always. Jesus our joy will soon be in us to make our joy complete. We cry out with joy and gladness, because among us, within us, is the great and holy one of Israel! May we exult always at this incredible gift and help the whole world to rejoice with us!